Wendy Earle, 30 September 2006
The sheer amount of time young people spend using media – an average of nearly 6 1/2 hours a day – makes it plain that the potential of media to impact virtually every aspect of young people’s lives cannot be ignored
- Victoria Rideout et al, ‘Generation M: media in the lives of 8-18 year-olds’, The Kaiser Family Foundation, March 2005
The influence of the media on children has been a major preoccupation of public discussion since television became widely available in the 1950s. With every technological media innovation the discussion is renewed and intensified. In recent years, the internet and mobile technologies have raised further concerns about the pervasive influence of the media:
Without question, this generation truly is the media generation, devoting more than a quarter of each day to media. As media devices become increasingly portable, and as they spread even further through young people’s environments – from their schools to their cars – media messages will become an even more ubiquitous presence in an already media-saturated world. Anything that takes up this much space in young people’s lives deserves our full attention (Rideout et al 2005)
Behind these apparently neutral statements is a lot of baggage. In general, the media are not regarded in neutral terms, but rather are seen as problematic – which is why, indeed, young people’s use of the media does require our full attention. In the popular press, the impact of the media is overwhelmingly represented as negative. The media are blamed for contributing to obesity, violent and antisocial behaviour, low educational achievement and much else. Television, in particular, as a ‘sit back’ passive medium which virtually every child in the developed world has access to from birth, is a frequent target of criticism.
Until recently, broadcasters operated a fairly laissez-faire policy towards children’s television. Public service broadcasting regulations dictate the minimum level of educational and children’s programming. But on the whole broadcasters have allowed those assigned to the task a free hand in programming for children, within (usually) relatively tight budgets. In the past broadcasters tended to ignore media panics about the impact of television on children – or at least they have taken reports about the harmful effects of television with a large pinch of salt. They have generally ignored critics who have taken them to task for sacrificing quality to consumerism, creating programmes for the lowest common denominator in order to maximise ratings and advertising revenues, allowing too many advertisements and product placement.
Recently, however, commitment to children’s welfare has become the benchmark against which broadcasters are judged. How responsible are they? How committed are they to protecting vulnerable audiences such as children? Broadcasters have started to become defensive about their alleged role in undermining children’s well-being by, for example, allowing advertisements of soft drinks and fast foods during children’s TV schedules. A case in point is the idea that television might play a role in children’s health. In 2004 the Food Standards Agency announced plans to encourage broadcasters to use celebrities, characters and cartoons to encourage children to eat healthier foods (Food Standards Agency 6.7.2004). On the basis that ‘the media have a role to play in encouraging improvements in children’s diet and exercise’,the British Medical Association recommended that ‘Celebrities and children’s television characters should only endorse healthy products that meet nutritional criteria laid down by the Food Standards Agency (FSA)’ (BMA 2006). Responding to this, BBC Worldwide has revised its policy on the use of CBBC characters, such as the Fimbles, to brand food products, ensuring that branded products are nutritionally sound, claiming that: ‘By controlling the use of branded children’s characters, the BBC is taking a positive leadership role in influencing the diet of children and encouraging healthy eating’ (IBLF 3.12.2005).
Even independent television companies have taken this responsibility on board. In 2005, Nickelodeon and PBS in the US started to incorporate messages in programmes like Sesame Street, such as ‘too many sweets can make kids feel sick’ and ‘it’s important to exercise and be active’, on the spurious basis that ‘we want to put the power back in the kids’ hands’ (Andrews 22.6.2005).
In the UK, Ofcom is proposing to support the government campaign for healthy eating by banning children’s television from including advertisements or promotions for foods high in sugar, salt and other additives considered fattening or bad for children. Instead of challenging this infringement on their independence, broadcasters are demonstrating a pragmatic willingness to be consulted on the method of control that will do least harm to their budgets (Ofcom 2006).
There is no more evidence than there has ever been that watching television is harmful to children in any way. In reviews of the research into links between television-watching and obesity, both here and in the US, reliable evidence is found to be non-existent. For example, a detailed review of the literature, conducted in the US in 2004, found that the research was inconclusive and contradictory at best (Kaiser Family Foundation 2004).
Critics have pointed to flaws in the way research into media effects is set up and conducted. In a survey of the research on the effects of advertising, Jeffrey Goldstein (1998) concludes that:
[T]here is no convincing evidence that advertising affects children’s values and materialism, eating habits, the use of tobacco and alcohol, gender and ethnic stereotypes, violence, socialisation, or has any long term effects.
Brian Young (2004) has demonstrated how academic research has been misrepresented to support the agendas of campaigning organisations in the obesity debate.
Reviewing research into the impact of media violence on children, Jonathan L Freedman (2002) is trenchant in his criticisms. Examining around 200 studies – ‘virtually all the original research on the topic’ – he concludes that far from proving the hypothesis, the evidence tends to contradict the presumption that there is a causal link between media violence and aggressive behaviour. He dissects the evidence provided by a variety of different studies using a range of methodologies, including surveys, laboratory experiments, field experiments, longitudinal studies, comparison studies (with and without television) and other methodologies. He finds the evidence that the media causes violent behaviour to be ‘weak and inconsistent, with more non-supportive results than supportive results’ (Freedman 2002: 200).
However, the precautionary principle increasingly governs attitudes towards children’s access to the media and the kinds of content they get exposed to. As indicated at the beginning of this essay, the growing ubiquity of media in children’s lives has spurred concerns about its influence – in particular, its perceived power to market consumer products and promote antisocial attitudes and prejudices. The growth of satellite and cable television with numerous digital channels, and the wide accessibility of the internet, has raised the problem of controlling children’s access to these.
This is exemplified in a recent detailed review of the evidence for ‘harm and offence in media content’ conducted by Andrea Millwood Hargrave and Sonia Livingstone. While Hargrave and Livingstone (2006) make it clear that research shows no clear evidence of harm caused by advertising or violent content, they stress
…the complex and diverse ways in which different media are variably but crucially embedded in most or all aspects of our everyday lives, suggesting that it seems implausible to argue that they have no influence, whether positive or negative.
So strong is the protectionist impulse that even when researchers recognise that the evidence is inadequate, they insist there must be cause for concern: even if there is no proof to the contrary, then the media must be potentially harmful. While Hargrave and Livingstone urge readers not to assume a direct causal link (because the research does not back up this assumption), they urge us not to be complacent about the possibility of negative influences.
Hargrave and Livingstone conclude that more research is needed into how individuals and groups are affected by the media, taking into account the complexity of the process. But it is not lack of research that is the problem. It is impossible to prove a negative and therefore it is impossible to prove that the media don’t have harmful effects on children and young people. For those who set themselves up as guardians of children’s welfare, this means assuming that the media must harm some children, some of the time, in some way, even if this is unmeasurable and unpredictable.
No doubt the media influence what we know and the way we think about the world, and they may influence our attitudes and assumptions. But, by assigning a positive or negative value to this influence, commentators and researchers justify regulating and controlling the media. The media then become subject to pressures that dictate what represents a positive or negative influence. But who is to determine what is positive or negative in the media? And on what basis? Who is entitled to set themselves up as the arbiters of what is good and bad for us? This is an entitlement of all adults to do for ourselves, which we should defend to the hilt. As for children, we should trust their parents to make these decisions for them. (But that is another discussion!)
Broadcasters should take responsibility for providing us with programmes we want to watch, contributing to the rich tapestry of our lives in their multifarious and multidimensional ways, and should not allow themselves to become the tools of a government-sponsored process of social engineering, in the name of protecting ‘vulnerable adults’ and children.
Wendy Earle is commissioning editor (education), British Film Institute
Andrews, E. (22.6.2005) PBS, Nickolodeon tuck health messages into popular kids shows. The Arizona Republic.
BMA (2006). Childhood obesity. British Medical Association. March 2006.
Food Standards Agency (6.7.2004). Foods Standards Agency agrees action on promotion of foods to children. Food Standards Agency.
Freedman, J. (2002). Media Violence and its Effect on Aggression. Toronto, University of Toronto Press.
Goldstein, J. (1998). Children and advertising - the research. European Commission Commercial Communications Newsletter 13. July 1998.
Hargrave, A.M. & S. Livingstone (2006). Harm and Offence in Media Content: A Review of the Evidence. Bristol, Intellect Books. Extract at https://www.lse.ac.uk/collections/pressAndInformationOffice/PDF/Harm_and_Offence_summary.pdf
IBLF (3.12.2005). BBC tackles obesity issue through children’s programming and food. International Business Leaders Forum.
Kaiser Family Foundation (2004). The role of media in childhood obesity. The Kaiser Family Foundation. February 2004.
Ofcom (2006). Television advertising of food and drink products to children. Office of Communications (Ofcom).
Rideout, V., D.F. Roberts & U.G. Foehr (2005). Generation M: media in the lives of 8-18 year-olds. The Kaiser Family Foundation. March 2005.
Young, B. (2004) Does advertising to children make them fat? A sceptical gaze at irreconcilable differences. Paper presented at ‘Children as Consumers: Public Policies, Moral Dilemmas, Academic Perspectives’, The Royal Society, London, 20 February 2004.
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